Journalist Bob Johnstone has been writing about technology developments for more than three decades. In that time, he has researched technologies and applications that have disrupted markets and changed lifestyles and businesses around the globe — ranging from the dawn of electronics entrepreneurship in Japan and how solar energy grew from a grassroots effort, to computing in the classroom and, of course, our current topic: LEDs. In fact, Johnstone has now published two books on LEDs, the first being Brilliant!: Shuji Nakamura And the Revolution in Lighting Technology, which details the story of 2014 Nobel Laureate Nakamura and his work in developing efficient blue LEDs and laser technologies that became the foundation for the company Soraa. Johnstone provided an excerpt from the updated edition of Brilliant! to LEDs Magazine in 2015, in which he noted, “Like any good engineer Shuji Nakamura sees himself primarily as a problem solver.” That sentiment, it is clear, coalesced in Johnstone’s latest book, L.E.D.: A History of the Future of Lighting, where he chronicles the origins of the light-emitting diode, its evolution, and the applications it promises to enable.
Johnstone confirmed my takeaway when I asked him what motivated him to research the evolution of LED lighting. “After doing the Nakamura book, I was curious to go back and learn how the revolution in lighting was playing out, discover whether the predictions I had made in that first book about LEDs becoming ubiquitous were actually coming to pass,” he responded. “People think that it’s the technology that determines what happens. It’s not; it’s actually people who drive the transformation, highly motivated people who won’t take no for an answer.
“These are the people that fascinate me — their stories are at the heart of my book.”
Johnstone’s book lays down the path tread by scientists and engineers, including Nick Holonyak’s time at General Electric (GE) developing the first visible LED, Nakamura, and beyond, documenting the gains and losses made in LED technology over the past 50-plus years. (For a cool timeline on LED and light source history, see an article published by our colleagues at Laser Focus World.)
Of course, the book covers a range of LED advances but also the parallel shift in the lighting industry as solid-state technology began to expand its applicability. Johnstone admits that the advance of any invention is not without its pitfalls and accidents, and he doesn’t shy away from noting that “[a]long the way contingency has more than a small part to play.” Indeed, some of the milestones in history were the result of failures and discoveries that were unintended consequences of those failures. So it’s refreshing that the book explores the challenges and resistance that LED pioneers faced along the way. For example, Johnstone provides context to the lighting shift by weaving the tale of Philips Lighting becoming an electronics-based business and keeping its traditional business from falling into obscurity by the efforts of forward-thinking folks who followed the progress of semiconductor electronics from research into commercialized LED devices and finally to SSL. You’ll not find a linear path here from LED beginnings to SSL boom because the application of the technology simply didn’t form a wagon train from point A to point B.
Johnstone delivers a compelling story of the “passionate individuals frustrated with the status quo who are determined to make the world a better — and better-lit — place,” placing the evolution of lighting into the context of the digital age. With new levels of control enabled by combining ever-shrinking electronics and software, the author observes, more attention can be devoted to the discovery of new and better ways to apply LED lighting…leading to innovations in illumination that can achieve healthier environments, stimulate or calm the occupants, speed recovery in healthcare settings, grow crops, and perhaps more we have yet to imagine.